Check Guesses about Effective Learning Strategies

February 16, 2015 at 2:23 PM Leave a comment

Here are the answers, according to cognitive scientists at the “Learning and the Brain” Conference on “Making Lasting Memories: Using Brain Science to Boost Memory” in San Francisco Feb.12-14th 2015.

Students reading this: Pick one or two things that surprised you to follow the links to more information.

Which strategies are the most effective for long-term learning?

VERY effective

  • Test yourself regularly (This is called the ‘testing effect’. Testing strengthens retrieval of information and significantly helps learning. It also gives you quick feedback on your success at learning and practice at test-taking. Knowing what you know helps you identify gaps in your knowledge and do something about them ahead of time. All of this helps you do much better on tests.)
  • Find a way to make the information interesting and relevant to you.
  • ‘Chunk’ information into pictures and ‘puzzle pieces’ that can be linked together, and linked to what you already know. Active chunking and linking of information forges new connections and strengthens existing pathways, building new learning.
  • Outlining Any way you can interact with information and put it in your own words helps learning. 
  • Study groups You get fast feedback on how you are doing, and a way to correct mis-understandings. Recalling information verbally, and explaining it with gestures to others is another, powerful way to interact with concepts.
  • Studying just before bedtime helps retain information better than studying the morning of a test. See “Ability to Learn is Affected by Sleep” in Scientific American.
  • Also see ASAPscience “The 9 BEST scientific study techniques” video clip.

Medium effectiveness

  • Making mnemonics for key information. See The Mnomicizer to put these together in a quick, fun way. 
  • Flashcards

NOT very effective (works a little for short-term cramming but does NOT result in long-term memory).

  • Re-reading (reviewing)
  • Highlighting important information

See Dr.Henry Roediger and the review of his book “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” in the Boston Globe.

Which of these are more effective to do well on a test? The research-based answers are bolded.

  • Study right before the test OR spacing out practice sessions before the test
  • Studying a variety of topics OR studying the same topic until you get it, then the next.
  • Guessing answers and correcting your responses OR studying only the right answers.
  • Feeling like the topic is easy OR struggling a little with the topic
  • Studying just what you need to know OR connecting what you learned to what you already know.
  • Form mental images, analogies or stories to help remember information OR memorize just the information you need.
  • Imagine walking around a place you know and picking up key words you need OR study the information you need.
  • Take notes by hand OR type into a computer or electronic device.
  • Multi-tasking OR focusing with few distractions
  • Make e-mail titles, key words and twitter posts about the topic OR study the details of the topic.

See this article in the Huffington Post: 7 Secrets to Turbocharge Your Brain from Sandra Bond Chapman Ph.D. and her TEDx Talk

How do these habits and choices impact learning? Guess and check.

  1. Aerobic exercise. Particularly helpful with memory tasks.
  2. Challenging and meaningful tasks. Find a way to make tasks meaningful, give ideas and feedback to teachers. 
  3. Gesturing while explaining a concept or idea. This really works – the BODY – mind connection is very strong.
  4. Being in nature or having nature photos posted in study area. Surprisingly effective at calming your brain and helping focus when you return to work.
  5. A non-cluttered classroom or study area. Another surprise – too much on bulletin boards can be over-stimulating. Low lighting, quiet colors and order help calm and focus you.
  6. Taking time to daydream and nap while problem-solving or studying. Incredibly effective. Google and many start ups that value innovation encourage these habits of mind used by great thinkers such as Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali.
  7. Give up on a project, then come back to it. Your mind is attuned to relevant information as soon as you start a project. You will often find a solution or inspiration if you walk away and take a break. 
  8. Using a timer for 25 minutes on, 5 minutes break to help with procrastination.
  9. Work on the hardest tasks in the first couple of hours after you get up.
  10. Get enough sleep and get sleep before a test or performance. During sleep, neurons shrink slightly and allow waste built up during the day to flush away. The waste products otherwise get in the way of clear thinking. 
  11. Insert yourself into a concept – ex. imagine yourself as the nucleus of the cell, or a carbon atom in a diamond etc.
  12. Not only follow your passion, but BROADEN your passions.

See Prof Barbara Oakley’s TEDx talk “Learning how to Learn” (17 minutes)

See Prof. Sian Beilock’s book “How the Body knows it’s Mind” summary.

Which of these help people calm down and do their best on a high-stress test (or other high-pressure performance like a presentation or interview)? True or False?

  1. Worrying about how badly you might do will help you focus. T/F
  2. Re-framing the test as a ‘challenge’ or a ‘game’. T/F
  3. Try a ‘power pose’ for 5 minutes before the test. (See pics of power poses here.) T/F Sounds stupid, but strong research backs up the effectiveness of this strategy. See TED talk by Dr.Amy Cuddy “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” 20 mins.
  4. Journal your worries about the test immediately before the test T/F Journalling your fears significantly improves the test scores of anxious test takers, especially those who re-frame the test in a positive way, such as ‘I know I really know this stuff, and I can always take it again if I have to.’ or similar. 
  5. Cram at the last minute. T/Increases anxiety which can affect performance. It does slightly improve short term achievement though. 
  6. Take a ‘brain break’ every 25 minutes when studying. (A brain break is a few minutes of diffuse focus, doing something relaxing and completely different.) T/F This strategy works VERY well to break the habit of procrastination. Use a kitchen timer. 
  7. Start a big project, and work straight through, no matter what. T/You are more likely to be creative if you schedule in time to take breaks. 
  8. Study always in the same place T/Variety is stimulating and helps you focus. Many start-ups, Google, FaceBook etc. have a variety of workspaces for this reason.
  9. Use many sources of information T/Too much information is overwhelming – use just a few sources of information. Because books don’t have the distraction of checking e mail etc., they are actually better for serious study.
  10. Getting instant feedback on your learning T/F Feedback is good and is better when it is soon after you hand in work BUT it’s actually good to struggle a little and to discover answers yourself for your long-term learning. 
  11. Consciously imagining that you are perfectly capable of doing well on the test, and that you deserve to. T/F It’s good to go into a test with a reasonable level of confidence BUT many people overestimate their performance. To stop this disappointment from happening to you, test yourself regularly and pay attention to mistakes.
  12. Practice the scary task: by doing regular test practice ahead of time. T/F Practice of ANY scary performance, presentation, interview or test helps you avoid choking under pressure. This works for CEOs to SATs, sporting events to public speaking and everything in between. 

See Sian Beilock’s interview on her book “Choke – What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to.


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